Game Review: Ciel nosurge

Ciel nosurge ~The Song Offered to a Lost Star~
GUST CO., 2012

In the interest of full disclosure, as of this writing I have only played Ciel nosurge‘s story up to about the point where Ar nosurge‘s diverges from it, about two-thirds of the way to the end.

Ciel nosurge

On one day, a perfectly ordinary day just like any other, you turned on your portable game machine to relax for a while. But instead of the system menu or a game, what appeared on the screen was a girl’s face. Instead of music, what came out of the speakers was her voice.

IonShe told you that her name was Ion, and that she had just finished repairing a multidimensional terminal, which formed a connection with your game machine and allowed you to see into her world. Mind you, it’s not the world of a game that she’s from, but a world as real the one you’re in right now. The abilities of her terminal are different from your game machine; she can’t see or hear you, but you can project your thoughts to her, whether to communicate with her or just think about how much you want to give her a hug.

Ion needs a hug. She lives alone… not just alone in her apartment, but truly alone. There’s only one other person in the same world as her, and that person makes for less than ideal company. She can’t remember anything from before the time she started living there, though it hasn’t been for very long. So you discover a way to get those memories back. You venture into her dreams and repair her broken memories, reliving them along with her.

Ion costume

As you and Ion discover the secrets of her past, from a time when she was a living symbol of the hope and salvation of an entire civilization, the two of you grow closer and closer to each other. Even though your ability to perceive and communicate with each other is so limited, the bond between you soon becomes far more than simple friendship…

That’s what Ciel nosurge should have been. (Almost straight from the creator’s mouth.)


The reality of Akira Tsuchiya’s creations have a habit of being unable to live up to his imagination. When he finally achieved his dream of fully dynamic battle music, it was in the game that sounded the death knell to the Ar tonelico series by being awful in every way (except for some of the music. Some because Gust had just hired a new composer and he sucked at the time. Also the dynamic battle music was pretty mediocre too.) When he tried to depict his vision of the bond between a man and a woman, it resulted in this infamous scene. All the creativity and passion he put into Ar tonelico‘s world was, in the end, only visible in the setting guides and other side materials.

Ciel nosurge, his spiritual successor to Ar tonelico, is no different in this regard—although what it’s missing is more obviously attributable to lacking budget and staff than to the incompetence of those involved.

Yokkoi setNo part of Ciel nosurge is truly a chore to play in the way that almost every part of AT3 was—it helps that it’s not really a game at all. Ciel nosurge is divided into two sections; your daily life with Ion, where you watch her go around her business and can chat with her or ask her to do something, and the Dream World, where you repair and relive her memories in sequences akin to the Cosmospheres in the Ar tonelico series without the token interactivity those had.

Daily life with Ion is the most unique aspect of Ciel nosurge, and is mildly interesting and fun at first. I can think of no real basis of comparison for it in other games, since even conceptually similar titles like the Sims have some sort of additional management aspect to them. You can manage Ion’s life to a degree, but you don’t have to—and even if you do, it’s still only to a degree. You can suggest when she should get up and go to sleep, but if they’re awkward times, she’ll complain and eventually tell you she can’t do it. If she’s asleep, you can’t wake her up unless she’s close to waking up anyway. If you try to talk to her when she’s in the bathroom, she won’t reply, and if you ask her to do something while she’s eating, she’ll make you wait until she’s finished. Ion is her own person, just like you and me.

Ion swimsuitSo what can you have Ion do? You can add materials to her shopping list, tell her to make things with those materials, and have her use those things after she’s made them. Typically, “those things” are articles of clothing. Thus, Ion’s daily life can take upon itself a fetishistic quality if you give her nothing but cat-ear headbands and swimsuits to wear. But if you’ve played an Ar tonelico game, you probably expected as much, and compared to its predecessors Ciel nosurge is positively wholesome.

The glaring weakness of Ion’s daily life is that while she likes to spontaneously strike up conversations with you, she doesn’t have much to talk about. After the third time she’s asked you whether you prefer cats or dogs, or the fifth time she wants to know what you’d wish for if you could wish for anything, she starts to feel less human. It doesn’t help that the only two things you can answer to the latter question are “world peace” and “tons of money” (most dialogue selections have only two or three choices.) Ion does have unique comments every time she creates a new item and when you unlock a new memory of hers, but those only go so far.

Ion on the beachThere are a few other aspects to Ion’s daily life, such as the eventual option to go on dates with her and spend time together on a virtual beach (as well as using the touchscreen to caress her body while you’re there, because the game wasn’t bawdy enough.) But none of them that I’ve experienced thus far really add any additional depth to it.

 


 

So let’s talk about unlocking memories, shall we? You can dive into Ion’s Dream World at any time when she’s not extra busy—that is, in the bathroom or eating—including when she’s sleeping, of course.

SharlsThe interactive component of the Dream World is that you can scan bar codes to create Sharls, cute fairies that exist inside Ion’s mind, and put them to work repairing her memories. By fulfilling the Sharls’ daily requests such as “have Ion go get stuff from the garden” or “pat Ion’s head,” you earn Hymn Power that can be used to strengthen them or recruit more powerful Sharls. While it might seem amusing from the description, I found managing Sharls to be little more than a chore, as they tire quickly from repairing memories and need to be swapped out for a fresh Sharl of the correct element. Luckily, only a few of Ion’s memories need repairing, so there’s not enough of the process required to become truly tedious.

Most of Ion’s memories are visual novel-style sequences simply waiting you to watch them and thus reveal them to her. There is no interactivity whatsoever, but that’s not one of the problems I have with them.

NeyIon’s memories are the place where it becomes truly apparent that Ciel nosurge was made with a shoestring budget and a skeleton crew. Most scenes visually consist of characters simply standing around and talking at each other, and animations and poses are reused heavily throughout the game. The grand finale of each ‘chapter’ is an FMV featuring one of the characters casting song magic, but after the first chapter’s lovely “Ah-ih rei-yah,” they become steadily less impressive until they’re little more than panning around a character’s standard animations with extra visual FX.

As was also a major problem in the Ar tonelico series, Ciel nosurge has great difficulty presenting its setting due to its poor production values, and suffers some tonal dissonance as a result of it. You’re told that the world of Ra Ciela is in peril of destruction, but a few extras shouting in terror and the dying sun (unsuccessfully) raining death upon Ion’s vicinity in that one FMV fail to make the fact sink in, especially when followed by several significantly more lighthearted chapters. Just how many people look to Ion for salvation is unclear when each crowd scene contains only a few characters. And so forth.

Old friendsIt would be hasty for me to pass judgement on Ciel nosurge‘s plot as a whole, because I’ve only partway finished it, but there are a few things I can already note. The relaxed pace is one of them—the plot only really gets into gear halfway through the game, and many of the events before that feel decidedly small-scale and unimportant, which is rather at odds with Ion’s role as the living symbol of Ra Ciela’s salvation.

On a tangentially related note, each chapter of Ciel nosurge‘s story is paid DLC. They cost only 515 yen apiece, but with 12 chapters to the story that cost adds up, and if I hadn’t bought most of them as a pack deal I might have given up after four or five chapters of paying to watch Ion run around with her much younger friends towards no clear long-term goal.

New friendsThe strongest point of Ciel nosurge‘s story is the characters. Ion’s naive, overly idealistic, yet earnest wishes to help others and save the world (wishes shared by every other character in their own way; who wouldn’t want to save the world?) truly come through in her dialogue, and make it possible to empathize with her even though her clumsy attempts to be of use often end up doing more harm than good.

Every character that’s meant to be likeable is, though they all have their own desires and secrets, which lead the way into subplots that make them far more than just amusing sidekicks. Even antagonists who at first seem comically evil are eventually revealed to have their own understandable motivations and redeeming qualities (sometimes discussed long after they’re dead or otherwise gone from the story.) The game is fully voiced, and though the voice cast contains few industry veterans, they all put in a commendable effort and breathe life into the characters.

KanonIn a medium where even a single character with charm and depth to them is not something that can be taken for granted, that alone makes Ciel nosurge‘s story well worth reading, despite the questionable pacing and the embarrassingly cheap presentation. It’s certainly no worse than that of any Ar tonelico game’s, and I’m prepared to say it’s far better than AT1 and AT3’s stories already.

 


 

As for my thoughts on Ciel nosurge as a whole? I could sum up all my complaints, but on the whole they’re all things that could have been better, not things that made the game worse. Ciel nosurge succeeds where it counts. It attempts to create a dynamic between the player and its own story that has rarely if ever been attempted before, and though it doesn’t work perfectly, I’ve always held that fully realizing an ambition is secondary to having that ambition in the first place. And Tsuchiya might have dropped the ball on depicting “the bonds of friendship” in the first Ar tonelico, but he’s gotten the hang of it by now.

Most importantly, Ciel nosurge conveys a feeling throughout that Gust’s previous titles and video games in general only intermittently manage to capture—that of being a true labor of love. The staff’s passion for their creation shines through in every aspect of it, even though with their meager resources there was little they could do to make the game truly impressive. And since in Ciel nosurge, the player is part of the story, that love is meant for you as well.

Love

Don’t allow it to go unrequited.

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